Thomas Waterman Wood (1823-1903) By Richard Hathaway
Montpelier was a most unlikely birthplace for an artist who was to head both the National Academy and the American Watercolor Society - twin pillars of the traditional art establishment. At the time of Wood's birth in 1823, the capital boasted only about 2,400 souls; exposure to prevailing artistic and cultural tendencies was scanty indeed.
Yet its native son, Thomas Waterman Wood, largely self-taught save for a few months instruction in the studios of Boston artist Chester Harding, would steadily rise on both public approval and the respect of his fellow artists.
While his capable in portraiture provided the bread-and-butter segment of his art profession, his shift into genre art - especially his skilled delineation of everyday scenes in the life of rural New England - brought him a more enduring reputation.
Artists such as Norman Rockwell (once labeled "the Rembrandt of Punkin Crick") built upon the foundations laid down by practitioners such as Wood, Winslow Homer, J. G. Brown and Eastman Johnson.
Wood insisted upon drawing the specifics of his subject matter, rather than resorting to idealized types. The Art Journal of April 1876 declared: "as a colorist Wood is forcible, and as a delineator of character he never accepts the ideal, but goes direct to nature for his models. In the Composition of a picture, every object is clearly drawn, and he secures attention by the directness of his story."
Working from a profusion of preliminary, unsigned sketches and studies, Wood meticulously assemble his larger story-telling paintings such as 'The Village Post Office," "The Quack Doctor" and the "Yankee Peddler" piece by piece from individual portraits, drawings of animals and architectural features.
The complete whole became far more than the sum of the individual parts. Wood's pictures captured events in the life of his Montpelier village or related compelling moral tableaux such as the accusing spouse imploring the saloon-keeper in "The Drunkard's Wife."
Wood also enjoyed delightful visual puns to accentuate the moral messages of his stories: a bevy of quacking ducks emerges from underneath the wagon of "The Quack doctor," and the final three letters in the name in his name on the vehicles side ("I. M. Cheatham") are obscured by a wagon wheel.
It would be impossible to understand Wood's life and work without underlining his and his wife Minerva's affectionate relationship to his hometown of Montpelier. While Wood traveled widely to locations around the country and Europe to execute his art projects, he returned regularly to Montpelier.
While established either in the Pavilion Hotel or his Gothic cottage "Athenwood," Wood painted scores of Montpelier locals who would later inhabit one or another of his hugely successful paintings such as "Crossing the Ferry," "Arguing the Question," or "Jump." His relentless Yankee ethic resulted in an outpouring of artistic works in oils, watercolors and skilled etchings. In his frequent portrayals of African-Americans, as in "Cornfield" and "The Faithful Nurse," Wood avoided the racial stereotyping, treating each figure individually.
He also took time to banter with his neighbors, or to toss surplus apples from his orchard to neighborhood children from the top of his retaining wall at Athenwood. (After his death in 1903, one of the floral tributes at his service would be "Given by the children of Northfield Street.")
The death of his cherished wife Minerva in 1889, after decades of disability, ended a remarkably intimate relationship. In his later years, Wood determined with the cooperation of his longtime friend, Columbia University professor John W. Burgess, to give his hometown an art gallery. It would include representative works of his won, as well as examples from artists such as William Beard, Asher B. Durand, J. G. Brown, F. S. Church and Alexander Wyant.
Wood also traveled to the great museums of Europe to copy splendid works of Rembrandt, Raphael, Murillo, Titian, Turner and others. The results of these gifts persists today in the Wood Art Gallery on the Vermont College Campus.
Wood surely represented the conservative wing of the American art establishment during his many years as the president of the National Academy (artist James Smillie termed Wood's faction the "old fogy element"). Wood and his colleagues were less enamored of the impressionist and "French Tendencies" in art than the so-called progressives such as Smillie and Frederick Dielman.
In vigorously portraying everyday characters, and creating vibrant story-telling pictures, few matched the sheer vitality and wonderful specificity of Wood. Each carefully rendered detail contributed to the resonance of the whole. His "readable images" of rural Vermont and the diverse natives of Montpelier continue to speak to audiences a century after Wood first drew these visions on canvas and paper.
Perhaps Wood failed to meet Bertolt Brecht's dictum that art should be a hammer that shapes society. But Wood's evocative work nevertheless holds a mirror to the past, allowing us, albeit imperfectly, to enter into its culture to recapture precious moments of its everyday life.
The late Richard Hathaway was a professor of Liberal Studies in the Adult Degree Program at Vermont College and was a trustee to the T. W. Wood Art Gallery.
A History of the Wood Gallery By Joyce Mandeville
In 1889, a large sum of money had been left to the city on the death of Martin and Fannie Kellogg, $300,000 of which was to be used for the erection of a public library. Fannie's nephew, John Hubbard, contested his aunt's will, feeling that she had been in no condition to sign the document and indeed, he found witnesses that agreed with him. The court declared the Kellogg will null and void and Hubbard became the sole heir of the Kellogg fortune. A suit was filed to contest the court's decision and just before it was to go to the Vermont Supreme Court, a compromise was reached. Hubbard agreed to spend $30,000 on the construction of a library with an additional endowment to be paid at the completion of the project if the city would relinquish its claim on the estate and the library. In addition, the library upon completion was to be turned over to the Montpelier Public Library Association (MPLA) and Hubbard was to be one of the trustees. While this compromise was accepted by the MPLA, it created great divisiveness within the community.
While the library was under construction, T. W. Wood published an open letter to the MPLA in the local paper offering to donate his works of art to the newly organized YMCA provided that the MPLA keep their collection of books there as well. A proposition was sent to the MPLA stockholders by several of the trustees in favor of Wood's proposal. After much public discussion and still more divisive sentiment within the community, Wood's proposal was accepted and on August 8, 1895, the Wood Gallery of Art was created by a deed of gift in trust of forty-two paintings, watercolors and etchings for the city of Montpelier.
Given that Montpelier was such a small, fairly insular city, the controversy would not die. The Kellogg-Hubbard Library was built while the YMCA, MPLA and the Wood Art Gallery were housed on one floor in the Vermont Mutual Insurance Company building on State Street. Both institutions applied to the City for funding and both were turned down. The MPLA threatened to send its books to the Kellogg-Hubbard, but this was stopped by an injunction.
In 1896, Wood's friend Professor John W. Burgess felt that the Gallery and MPLA and YMCA deserved their own building. Professor Burgess who taught at Columbia College, was a summer resident of Montpelier living at Redstone, and was married to Montpelier native Ruth Payne a student of Wood. Burgess financed the purchase of property on State Street (part of the site of today's Capitol Plaza), renovated the existing building and added a fireproof addition. The Gallery had its opening reception in its new building on July 27, 1897. The controversy finally died and in 1899 the MPLA moved its books into the Kellogg-Hubbard, leaving the Gallery and the YMCA in their shared space. The original gift of forty-two works of art began to grow almost immediately. Soon Wood donated more of his work including copies of many of the Great Masters which Wood had painted for the edification of his fellow Vermonters. His friendships with other artists of his day were reflected in gifts from Frederick S. Church, Asher B. Durand, William Beard, J. G. Brown and many others. Upon Wood's death in 1903, the bulk of his estate and work were left to the Gallery.
The Gallery became a Montpelier landmark, the controversy if not forgotten, confined to a historical curiosity. Following the Great Depression the Gallery was chosen as the only official Vermont repository for the artwork from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) although some WPA work is at other locations in the state. The date of this acquisition is uncertain, but it was most likely sometime shortly after the end of the Second World War. In 1948, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library approached the Gallery with the desire to join the two cultural enterprises of the city into one building. In 1953 the Gallery moved into its new location on the upper story of the library and changed its name to the T. W. Wood Art Gallery. This is a time that is fondly remembered by many in the community. Several generations enjoyed having the entities under one roof for the esthetics and convenience the arrangement provided. The arrangement was a successful one for years until the expanding needs of both institutions indicated a need for change.
In 1985, Vermont College/Norwich University invited the Gallery to move into College Hall where the Gallery changed its name once again to the T.W. Wood Gallery & Vermont College Arts Center. This name change turned out to be fairly brief and the name T. W. Wood Gallery & Arts Center came in to use and is used to this day. In addition to hosting Vermont College's Master of Fine Art-Visual twice a year, the permanent collection is stored and presented along with changing exhibitions of contemporary art. The Gallery also provides a venue for concerts, lectures and a variety of events while continuing to maintain Vermont's artistic heritage and presenting the finest in the visual arts today.
Joyce Mandeville, the Executive Director of the T. W. Wood Gallery for twelve years, came to the Gallery after almost a decade of writing literary fiction. During her writing years she lived in England, traveled extensively in Europe where she haunted museums, galleries and stately homes. When she returned to the States in 2000, working in a gallery was a natural fit. She lives in East Hardwick where she pursues her passion for hiking, snow-shoeing and sailing.
More on the History of the Wood Gallery
Thomas Waterman Wood, recently widowed and childless, made plans to leave a collection of his paintings and those of his colleagues to the people of Montpelier, but it became more complicated than he or any one else could have imagined. In 1889 a large sum of money had been left to the city on the death of Martin and Fannie Kellogg, $300,000 of which was to be used for the erection of a public library in Montpelier. Fannie’s nephew, John Hubbard, contested his aunt’s will, feeling that she had been in no condition to sign the document and, indeed, he found witnesses who agreed with him. The court declared the Kellogg will null and void, and Hubbard became the sole heir of the Kellogg fortune. A suit was filed to contest the court’s decision, and just before it was to go to the Vermont Supreme Court, a compromise was reached. Hubbard agreed to spend $30,000 on the construction of a library, with an additional endowment to be paid at the completion of the project if the City would relinquish its claim on the estate and the library. In addition, the library upon completion was to be turned over to the existing Montpelier Public Library Association (MPLA), and Hubbard was to be one of the trustees. While this compromise was accepted by the MPLA, it created great divisiveness within the local community. While the library was under construction, T. W. Wood published an open letter to the MPLA in the local paper, offering to donate forty-two of his works of art to the newly organized YMCA, provided that the MPLA keep its collection of books there as well. A proposition was sent to the MPLA stockholders by several of the trustees in favor of Wood’s proposal. After much public discussion and still more divisive sentiment within the community, Wood’s proposal was accepted and in August of 1895 the Wood Gallery of Art was established. Given that Montpelier was a small and fairly insular city, the controversy would not die. The Kellogg-Hubbard Library was built while the MPLA and the Wood Art Gallery were briefly housed in the Vermont Mutual Fire Insurance Company building (still standing) on State Street. Both institutions applied to the City for funding, both were turned down. The MPLA threatened to send its books to the Kellogg-Hubbard, but this was stopped by an injunction. Finally and at long last, a new home for the Gallery, the YMCA, and the MPLA was secured on State Street. The controversy finally died, and in 1899 the MPLA moved its books into the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, leaving the Gallery and the YMCA in shared space. Wood’s original gift of forty-two oil paintings began to grow almost immediately. He soon donated more of his work, including copies of many Great Masters, which he had painted for the edification of his fellow Vermonters while traveling in Europe. His friendships with other artists of his day were reflected in gifts from Frederick Church, Asher Durant, William Beard, J. G. Brown, and many others. Upon Wood’s death in 1903, the bulk of his estate and work were left to the Gallery. The Gallery became a Montpelier landmark, the controversy if not forgotten, confined to recorded history. The Gallery was chosen as the only official Vermont repository for artwork from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), although some WPA work is at other locations in the state. The date of this acquisition is uncertain, but it was most likely sometime shortly after the end of the Second World War. In 1948, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library approached the Gallery with a wish to join ‘the two cultural enterprises of the city” into one building. Five years later the Gallery moved into its new location on the upper story of the library on Main Street, and changed its name to the T. W. Wood Art Gallery. This is a time that is fondly remembered by many long-time Montpelier residents. Several generations enjoyed having both institutions under one roof, both for the esthetics and for the convenience. The arrangement was successful, until the space needs of both institutions necessitated a change. In 1985, Vermont College invited the Gallery to move into spacious quarters on the first floor of historic College Hall, where the Gallery re-named itself the T. W. Wood Gallery & Vermont College Arts Center. This name change was fairly brief before another name, T. W. Wood Gallery & Arts Center, came into use. The college itself went through several transformations, before a new institution, Vermont College of Fine Arts, bought the campus in 2008, for its growing graduate programs. Five years later the Gallery was asked to leave, when the college needed the space. In 2013 the Gallery moved from College Hall to its current location on 46 Barre Street, close to Montpelier’s downtown. With two other partners, Monteverdi Music School and River Rock School, the Gallery founded a non-profit educational corporation, The Center for Arts and Learning, in order to buy the former Central Vermont Catholic School. For the first time in its long history, the Gallery is master of its own home. After its final move, the Gallery changed its name to the T. W. Wood Gallery: A Museum of American Art, to better reflect its dual role as an art museum and a gallery for contemporary art. Its permanent collections are on display in the Wood Room and the WPA Room, while the long hallway gallery and meeting room are used for changing exhibits of the best of contemporary visual art. The Gallery has a dedicated classroom used for art classes for children and adults, an after school arts program and summer art camps. The meeting room is used for many events including art receptions, poetry readings, Art Talks, film showings, private meetings and other events. Both the classroom and meeting room are available for rent for a nominal fee. Joyce Mandeville Updated, 2017 to edit.
Location CENTER FOR ARTS AND LEARNING 46 Barre Street, Montpelier, VT 05602
The T.W. Wood Gallery mission is to preserve our artistic heritage and to bring the best of today's art to Central Vermont.